However, my wife will always choose something new. Always. I have to admit that I owe some culinary revelations to this habit of hers, including my addiction to sushi and a discovery of the treasure trove that is Lebanese cuisine. But to be honest, the majority of new dishes we order are disappointments that we have no desire to encounter again. Is it worth it for the rush of discovering a delicious new food? Sure. Is it enough to stop me from ordering a pulled-pork sandwich or a pad thai for the one-hundredth time? Definitely not.
So what does all this have to do with writing genre fiction? Well, some might say that reading genre fiction is a bit like ordering pulled-pork sandwiches over and over, that it makes you predictable (i.e. boring). Others might add that writing genre fiction is little more than an act of trying to resuscitate long-dead tropes while trying to pass off cheap imitations as original work. Given these two stereotypical notions, especially within the writing community, there can be a lot of shame or defensiveness around reading or writing these kinds of stories. Therefore, I feel the need to present an argument in defense of genre fiction, its readers, and its writers.
"Therefore, I feel the need to present an argument in defense of genre fiction, its readers, and its writers."
I would love to include a comprehensive list of all that is included under the umbrella of ‘genre fiction’, but there are endless branches and sub-branches which spiral down toward infinity in fractal patterns. Some of the most popular are Romance, Westerns, Mystery, Horror, Thrillers, Fantasy, and Science Fiction. If you are a writer or reader of any genre, or aspire to be one, this rant is for you. (And if not, feel free to go read a dictionary…)
So I’ll just go ahead and say it straight: I write Fantasy. I write cursed swords and magical monsters and medieval feasts with calorie counts high enough to kill an olympic weightlifter. I don’t have a BA in History, in Poetry, or in Literary Criticism (though I’m sure those are all great degrees to have) and I don’t aspire to be published in a literary journal. My aim in writing is not to win an argument or to show off my intellectual prowess, and it is certainly not to win prestigious literary awards to line my shelf with.
"I write Fantasy. I write cursed swords and magical monsters and medieval feasts
"My highest aspiration as a writer is this: to write the book that people keep on that extra-special place on their shelf, the book whose pages are wrinkled and stained from use..."
I write Fantasy because I strive to create the kind of stories I want to read. I want adventure. I want magic. And most of all, I want worlds unbounded by the shackles of our present reality or belaboured past. That is the kind of story I crave when I feel numbed by the drivel of the day-to-day, when I feel crushed between the cogs of ‘the system’, or when the itch for adventure is so insistent I can no longer ignore it. Of course, that doesn’t mean I won’t reference history or challenge real political or philosophical ideas; what it means is that I have a safe place to explore and create, a cushion between raw reality and a mental other-space where it is easier to think, explore, and feel.
"That is the kind of story I crave when I feel numbed by the drivel of the day-to-day, when I feel crushed between the cogs of ‘the system’, or when the itch for adventure is so insistent I can no longer ignore it."
Despite my love of Fantasy, many writers of genre fiction get it wrong. Really wrong. Their plot lines get tangled in tropes, their characters end up skewered on tired stereotypes, and the overcooked hyperbole of their world causes it to collapse in on itself. In fact, these fumbled attempts at imitation, rather than creation, are what give genre fiction a bad name in the writing world. So where does good genre fiction start? Well, it starts with a promise.
"Promise is the foundation of genre fiction... You must fulfill the promise of your genre
But don’t stop there. Give your genre fiction something extra. Zest it with a character or an idea that will catch your reader off-guard, that will make them think, that will stay forever impressed on their minds. Give them the rush and the escape that they have felt before while reading that genre and then dazzle them with something they never expected.
So don’t be ashamed of writing or reading genre fiction. If you are a writer then start with the promise and build off of that foundation. If you are a reader, don’t settle for dry characters or soggy plot lines.
Now, you’ll have to excuse me because I am really craving a pulled-pork sandwich...
For more advice about writing genre fiction, Joshua recommends listening to the Writing Excuses podcast.
I set up a certain time frame, in which I’d like to be done writing. After creating a detailed outline I can break it down easier. It helps me figure out how much I need to write each week to reach my goal!
"For a writing retreat, I’d love to go to The Black Forest."
I often hear writers complain that they don’t want to waste their time on social media. Personally, I have sparked many meaningful connections within the writing community online and have received much in the way of encouragement from this network of fellow writers. As you have found success in attracting a large audience online, what justification would you present to writers who are skeptical about the usefulness of social media?
I think anyone that has the opportunity to converse with, or learn from, other writers and authors, as well as spread the word about their work, should take that chance. You never know when that big break will come!
Before I wrote The Gatewatch, most of my writing took the form of song lyrics which I sang and performed with a Celtic folk music group. You have a musical background as a vocalist in the hard rock genre. How do your experiences in music shape your stories and what do you think other writers could learn from musicians?
I’ve been a musician for over 10 years now. People often feel moved by music, whether it’s the lyrics or the sound. I think metaphors are a big reason for that. Novels can have that same effect.
"People often feel moved by music, whether it’s the lyrics or the sound.
My stories are primarily inspired by the Norse Myths and I often find myself going back to source material to pick up small details about minor characters that I missed before. Most memorable for me are some of the characters that never get mentioned in popular culture, unlike the well-known actors like Thor, Odin, and Freya. I think a similar phenomenon happens in representations of Greek Mythology as characters like Zeus, Hermes, and Aphrodite overshadow most others. As your work is inspired in part by Greek Mythology, who do you think of as a figure in the Greek myths that deserves a moment in the spotlight?
I think that all deities deserve the spotlight, honestly. There are those shrouded in mystery, and chaos, and so many of them are highly misunderstood. Oh and Hera! Definitely Hera. Looks around the room, nervously, with a forced smile.
"There are those shrouded in mystery, and chaos, and so many of them are highly misunderstood.
The fantasy realm of Gnariam that you have created is both deep and wide. I sense a lot of anxiety from new fantasy writers about creating the world in which their stories take place. While I think we can both agree that there is no end to the work a writer could do in crafting their world, where do you think a new writer of fantasy should begin in their world-building process?
I absolutely love the world of Gnariam so far. It’s going to continue to grow. I think the best tip I could give is to think of as many things in this world, and write them down. For example: governments, religions, currencies, land masses, creatures, if there is magic or tech, terrains, climate, clothing, technology level, etc. Creating a world that feels tangible is a key to success.
"Creating a world that feels tangible is a key to success."
Where can readers find more of your work and stay up to date on your latest publications?
Discover the realm of Gnariam through C.S. Ratliff's novel The Lightning Rod on Amazon.
You are officially studying Egyptology at UBC but we bumped into each other during a fantasy reading event at White Dwarf Books in Vancouver. Of course, I do not find this surprising as most fantasy is inspired in part or in whole by history and mythology. As someone who studies these subjects formally, how does your academic background influence your experience of reading fantasy novels?
Well, I do read novels that are set in an Egyptian context now, as I can understand the obscure the facts, even though they are very much exaggerating the culture. Authors like Wilbur Smith, and Elizabeth Peters (Elizabeth is actually an Egyptologist). But when it comes to classical fantasy books, I don’t think it has really changed anything. Other than not having a lot of time to read novels outside of studying. So I would say that I tend to read more YA or Adult fantasy that isn’t a huge epic, just because I don’t have the time or brain power to “study” another huge story. Authors like George, R.R. Martin, or Steven Erickson are way too “intense”. Authors like Jim Butcher, Brandson Sanderson, Dan Brown, etc…are ones I tend currently to gravitate towards. I love fast paced adventure. Of course there is Tolkien! He is my ultimate favourite!
Well, I do read novels that are set in an Egyptian context now, as I can understand
Your studies in Egyptology and ancient cultures have taken you to many incredible destinations including Turin, Italy and Cypress in the Eastern Mediterranean. What is the next travel destination on your research list and what do you hope to study there?
"I went to the Chicago museum which is attached to their Art Institute, and it was amazing. But I didn’t know what I was seeing, till after I started studying art history and then it made those pieces understandable in a whole new context."
In your interview on The Tipsy Archives (a history podcast featuring just the right amount of wine) you mention that you have always been inexplicably drawn to Egyptian history and myth. I myself am drawn to the body of stories that make up the Norse myths and also have a hard time explaining what it is about them that I find so intriguing. Where do you think the power of myth is rooted and what about these stories makes them relevant today?
Ooh, that is a tough question, as we talked about briefly in person and via email, I too am also drawn to Norse myth, I have just academically studied Egyptian myth more. I think the power of myth lies in its ability to captivate a reader/listener because it is relatable. In myth, a reader can find hidden cultural gems of information that would otherwise have not been discovered. There is only so much that archeological evidence can tell us, albeit quite extensive, but nevertheless myth and story hold a culture’s “essence” or values. It is important I feel, for us to share and remember these stories cause then these cultures that do not exist in the same fashion as they used too come back to life and are remembered.
There is only so much that archeological evidence can tell us, albeit quite extensive,
In your essay The Portable Shrine of Anubis, you mention how the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb gave archeologists unparalleled access to information about Egyptian death customs which other fields of archeological study surely view with envy. As we come from a modern North American culture that does not like to dwell on death (but rather obsesses over a glorified version of youth), what strikes you as profound in ancient Egyptian beliefs about death?
"Most seem to think that they are a culture that is obsessed with death, and that they worship it (hence all the pop culture-egyptianizing) but they were in fact quite scared of death, and as such had all of their rituals around death so that they could keep on living in the next area they called The Field of Reeds."
Same like the grave goods, as you needed all of those items with you so that you could continue on. For the Egyptians, magic and death were literal. For example, if you drew a person missing an arm, then that person would have no arm in the next life. So you needed to make sure that once something was drawn, written, placed, that made it so. Death and life were interconnected to them.
In your research paper Soundscaping in the Ancient World: Weaving through the Writings of Time you discuss the importance of sound, as well as silence, in Egyptian language and culture. As my field of study involves the language Old Norse, sound becomes paramount because it was an oral culture with no official written language. However, today so much communication happens visually instead of audibly. What do you think we lose when we move away from auditory language towards text-based communication?
"I think we lose the emotions. We lose empathy. We lose our ability to become personal with people."
The ideological fanatics Nazi Germany in World War II seemed drawn to myths and sought to exploit them for their cultural power. Beyond the Germanic and Norse myths, Nazi archeologists tried, in a bizzare blending of fact and fiction, to prove that the Egyptian pharaohs were ancient Aryans. These bewildering notions still feature heavily in popular conspiracy theories. What do you think the role and responsibility of researchers and historians is in addressing such wildly inaccurate and potentially destructive ideas?
Researchers, historians and archaeologists need to publish their work!!! This is a real problem! There are many people out there who are doing amazing studies but that information never gets told to the public, and therefore stupid theories arise and you get Egyptomania and the misinformed meanings of symbols, be they Egyptian or Nordic.
"Researchers, historians and archaeologists need to publish their work!!! This is a real problem!"
As our role is to study the past, we need to do that in a professional, respectful way and to realize that it doesn’t matter where people come from or what they believe in, we are all here on this planet and we are here to keep our heritage alive. It is about cultural heritage. Educating and involving the locals about their own culture so that they can learn about what was lost to them as well as to us.
"It is about cultural heritage. Educating and involving the locals about their own culture
Where can Egyptology fans find more of your work and stay up to date on your latest research?
Ha! I will be uploading some of my essays, like the ones that you mentioned here, on my academia.edu page (once school is finished).
Find more of Larissa's work at academia.edu!
"I usually reach for the 1554 beer from New Belgium Brewery and drink Guinness on more special occasions."
One of the hardest things for any writer is to move forward with a story once it no longer feels ‘fun’, i.e., once the story is no longer flowing easily from your mind onto the page. What advice do you have for writers who feel like they are stuck in their narrative and are struggling to move forward?
I think that’s an issue that all writers struggle with at one time or another. We all want to write when we feel inspired, but bouts of inspiration can be few and far between. I follow some advice from Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird. Anne emphasises the importance of routine and of reaching a minimum word count no matter what. I’ve found that keeping a daily writing routine trains my creative muscles to work when I need them. I also aim to write eight hundred words a day, even if every sentence is a struggle. Once I get those eight hundred words down, I’ve usually broken through the wall and entered a good writing flow. If not, I can stop there and try again tomorrow. Repeat ad infinitum, punctuated with long walks and reading.
"I follow some advice from Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird.
I am always interested to learn about what else writers do for work as I find this has a significant influence on their writing. How has your work as a wildlife biologist informed your narrative and influenced the fantastic world you have created?
My training in biology makes it a point of professional pride to be accurate and precise in my descriptions of nature. No one else might notice if I confuse the behavior of hares with rabbits, but those are details that I care about. I spend an inordinate amount of time researching the life cycles of every flower, tree, and critter that I include in my book because I want my natural descriptions to be as realistic as possible.
"No one else might notice if I confuse the behavior of hares with rabbits, but those are details that I care about."
On the less technical side of things, my love of nature causes the natural world to loom large in my stories. Nature can be a setting, but it also influences moods, themes, and characters. I particularly love exploring how characters relate to nature because I think that is such an essential part of the human experience.
You and I are both avid fans of poetry in fantasy. I have enjoyed some of the poems you have posted on Twitter as well as those featured on your website, particularly The Road Goes Ever On. In the world of Kellen the Fey, what special role does poetry play in the context of the adventure?
I’m so glad you asked this question because it’s something I love to talk about. For Kellan, poetry begins as a gateway to an elder time full of daring heroes and magic. All the old stories were written in verse, and so that’s how he connects to them. When Kellan starts creating his own poems, it quickly becomes a driving force in his own legend. He learns that poetry is somehow connected to a very deep and powerful magic, but one that comes at a significant price. As Kellan matures into the legend himself, poetry becomes a medium through which he reflects on his journey. I think as the series progresses it will be really cool to see how the role of poetry, and Kellan’s relationship with it, changes from beginning to end.
"For Kellan, poetry begins as a gateway to an elder time full of daring heroes and magic....
As your site hints, there is a sequel to The Wind from Faerie which is tentatively titled The Many Antlered Crown. I am intrigued by the fact that we are both currently working on the second book in our respective series. I have personally found writing the sequel to be a vastly different experience than writing the first. In what ways has the process of writing The Many Antlered Crown been different for you compared to the first book?
When writing my first book, I was very aware of my word count. I knew that publishers and readers were more likely to take a chance on a shorter book, so I wanted my debut to be an approachable length. With this sequel, those concerns are completely out of the window. I’ve got a lot of room to explore the world, the characters, and some really exciting themes. The end result is going to be a book that is significantly longer than The Wind from Faerie, but will be better for it.
"With this sequel, those concerns are completely out of the window.
I also originally conceived Kellan’s story as one arc, but that has necessarily been divided into three books. The Wind from Faerie was just the opening act, an introduction to everything. With The Many Antlered Crown, I feel like I’m finally biting into the meat of Kellan’s story and it’s immensely satisfying.
I think it is fair to say that we both believe in the power of words. As you write, do you feel that there is something you want your reader to feel or do you write simply to tell a good story? Is there a specific message behind Kellen’s adventures or are they purely a narrative escape from our day-to-day reality?
Where can readers find you online and what can they expect to look forward to reading in 2020?
I have a website where readers can check out my weekly blog, see what I’m working on, and find links to my Twitter and Instagram pages. I hope to release The Many Antlered Crown in December of 2020, and the audiobook for The Wind from Faerie should become available early next year.
In light of these depictions, you may be surprised to learn the historical source material for dwarves in fantasy, the Norse myths, portray them as unequivocally evil. Though not even the Norse gods enjoy the benefit of the doubt with Odin himself being nicknamed Bolverk (Evil-Doer), dwarves were viewed as particularly vile. At one time they had supposedly been maggots wriggling in the dirt which were given the wits of men; with such repulsive origins they might be viewed as a symbol of the greed, lust, and violence that marked most of the Viking Age. (And if you think that is an ignoble birth then consider the fact that Ymir spawned giants out of congealed sweat in his armpits...)
"At one time they had supposedly been maggots wriggling in the dirt which were given the wits of men..."
"The dwarven brothers tied him to the chair and cut his throat so they could catch his blood in a vat.
"Mighty Fenrir is brought low when the gods call on the dwarves to craft the strongest chain of all;
There she comes to the dank cave of four dwarven smiths who are admiring their latest creation,
In my own writing I have worked to honor the original conception of the dwarves as presented in the Norse Myths while taking care to remain sensitive to the historical contexts in which the myths have been abused. Particularly heinous are the propaganda posters used to instill hatred toward people of Jewish descent during World War II; an honest evaluation of these political weapons will admit some clear lines being suggested between people of Jewish descent and the dwarves from Norse Mythology. Further, some adaptations of Wanger’s ring cycle clearly present Norse dwarves as pseudo-Jewish type characters which is yet another example of the toxic racism that led to one of the darkest chapters of human history.
Instead of abandoning the myths to those who would weaponize them for ill purposes,
Were they metaphors for human lust and greed? Were they archvillians to flesh out a world full of heroic gods?
For more on the history of the Norse Myths and their modern interpretations, Joshua recommends
From Asgard to Valhalla: The Remarkable History of the Norse Myths by Dr Heather O'Donoghue.
Stay up to date on Joshua's latest books by joining the Trollhunters!
I mean, the woman got armored all up and marched to the gods’ doorstep to demand compensation
Some authors stick to strict writing schedules while others prefer flexibility when managing where and when they write. How have you managed to maintain productivity as you write short stories and novels? Do you have any tips for writers who feel that ‘there just isn’t enough time’ to write?
My advice to writers who feel there isn’t enough time is to give yourself a deadline and try to plan around it. Find a magazine accepting short story submissions and say to yourself, “This is the deadline for submissions; I need to have the story done by x date to have it ready to submit,” or tell your friends or beta readers you’ll have a story to them by x date and implore them to keep you accountable.
Find a magazine accepting short story submissions and say to yourself,
My other piece of advice—if you hate pressure and deadlines—is to just try staying inspired. Read books in your genre, do research on your subject matter, write your outline, or write drabbles to get to know your characters. If you’re busy, there’s no such thing as “making time.” But if you’re so invested in your story to the point where it won’t leave your brain until you get the words down, you’d be surprised how much you can accomplish even in a short amount of time.
I ended up taking her Norse mythology and Icelandic saga classes too, and co-founded the Icelandic Saga and Scandinavian Clubs with some like-minded geeks.
I think one of the things I love about Norse mythology is that every time I reread the Eddas, I come across something I didn’t realize before and find myself looking for an Old Norse version of the poem or paragraph and reaching for my Old Norse dictionary to look up certain words.
Plus every translation of the Eddas is slightly different, and there are also several different manuscripts that could be used as sources—and if you’ve ever seen pictures of them, you can see that there’s room for error in transcription. The whole thing is like one giant puzzle and you can’t take anything at face value, and I love it.
...every translation of the Eddas is slightly different... The whole thing is like one giant puzzle
You have now had two short stories published in fantasy anthologies: Beneath Yggdrasil’s Shadow and Between the Tides. Will you continue to write short stories now that your debut novel, The Witch’s Heart, has been signed for publication? Also, do you have any tips for writers trying to break into the fantasy publishing scene with a short story?
Even if your first published story isn’t in a huge magazine or famous press,
Signy Ketilsdottir versus the Sea (as featured in Between the Tides) is the story of a Viking woman living in a remote fjord with a grudge against Ran, the Norse goddess of the sea. Was Signy’s inspiration a specific historical figure, a character from the myths, or from somewhere else?
The anthology Beneath Yggdrasil’s Shadow highlights stories about lost or forgotten goddesses in Norse Mythology. Your piece Bright One, They Called Her, as featured in the anthology, tells the tale of wandering witch who offers a young girl named Eydis a chance to avenge her murdered family. Within the story there is a tension in framing the traditionally heroic Aesir (i.e. Norse gods) as far less than admirable. Did you choose this alternative perspective simply as a way to freshen up an old narrative or as a critique of the traditional view of the myths?
That’s a great question! I framed it that way because the wandering witch is Angrboda, who doesn’t necessarily feel the gods are all that great, since they took her kids and all. Her whole message to Eydis is about taking her fate into her own hands and not relying on divine intervention or the support of others for justice. Eydis also appears as the witch Heid (which is more of a title than a name) in Signy vs. the Sea and will appear again in Gudrun’s story, so there’s a bit of continuity in these tales.
Her whole message to Eydis is about taking her fate into her own hands
I am very intrigued by the topic of your upcoming novel, The Witch’s Heart, which sets the character Angrboda at center stage. A somewhat obscure figure in the myths, she is most famously known for her infamous offspring by the trickster god Loki: the world serpent Jormungandr, the ferocious wolf Fenrir, and the chilling half-corpse Hela who is queen of the Norse underworld. What was your approach and process for filling in the gaps of her storyline while writing The Witch’s Heart?
I am so glad you asked! You’re right that Angrboda is super obscure. She’s mentioned once by name in each Edda and both times in relation to Loki and their children together. In most retellings she’s either some sort of creature or just sort of…there. And a lot of people picture her as this fierce warrior women, which is totally cool and also I hope those people aren’t disappointed with me. (I happen to have one such depiction as a poster on my wall because it’s so awesome—just not the way I went in TWH.)
The angle I took with Angrboda was to explore the associations she has in common with or which are echoed in other female figures in the mythology, so I ended up writing them all as the same person. Sounds crazy, right? But Norse mythology abounds with multiple names for the same figure (Odin being the best example of that) so I just sort of took this idea and ran with it.
Sounds crazy, right? But Norse mythology abounds with multiple names for the same figure
Another giantess in the mythology who has associations with wolves, snakes, and death is Hyrrokkin,
And then there are the other seeresses: the Seeress from “The Prophecy of the Seeress,” who mentions Heid, the woman with the “pleasing prophecies,” who was once Gullveig, whom the gods burned three times and who was three times reborn near the beginning of everything.
So I ended up writing Angrboda as all of the above: Gullveig, Heid, Hyndla, Hyrrokkin, the Seeress, etc. and interpreting all their names as one name for the same woman, so the story just kind of flowed from there. My goal was to make this novel slip seamlessly into the background of Norse mythology—which meant not changing the myths themselves, up to and including Ragnarök. But my problem was that I’d given this one woman phenomenal cosmic power… what kind of person would she have to be not to use this power to save her children and alter their fates?
But my problem was that I’d given this one woman phenomenal cosmic power…
With all that said, I definitely took some liberties when writing the story, and I’m the first to admit that. For example, I made Jarnsaxa one of the Jarnvidjur (the giantesses who inhabit Jarnvid) and made Angrboda and Skadi’s relationship central to the story. There isn't any evidence for either of these things—they just sort of happened as I was writing!
Where can readers stay up to date on your latest projects and learn more about the upcoming release of your debut novel?
I’m still in the revising stages of The Witch’s Heart so there isn’t much to update at the moment. I recently got the first peeks at my cover and I am so thrilled because it’s absolutely gorgeous and I can’t wait to share it. Although I’m most active on Twitter, I’ll be updating Facebook and my website as my release date (early 2021) draws closer.
Interesting first question for me, because I actually sort of hate sandwiches.
Writing beverages!! I could partake in any type of writing beverage and instantly be put in the typing mood. Coffee, hot chocolate, frappuccino, smoothie, apple cider, they are all on the same level of preference.
This is a tough quick-fire question! It’s hard for me to call any one character absolutely despicable, because there’s always something under that layer of not-niceness. I find villains are typically the most complex characters in a cast. There are so many layers to their backstory that made them into the monster they are. If you take a moment to step in their shoes, see the world through their lens, you may understand how they justify their actions. It doesn’t excuse them, but it does create sympathy, and how can you despise someone you pity? But if I had to choose one, I would pick Maven from the Red Queen series. I don’t want to be 'spoilery', but he did some really messed up things to people he had claimed to love and it made me really upset. I will say though, he has that complex backstory that makes you sympathize with him and some readers actually like him and ship him with the main character - he did not win me over that much.
I find villains are typically the most complex characters in a cast. There are so many layers to their backstory that made them into the monster they are.
What does a productive day of writing look like for you? Are you at home or out in public? Do you typically write thousands of words at a time or just a few hundred each session? Do you write on a schedule or are you flexible?
My writing schedule is controlled chaos. Working a full-time job and managing other adult life things makes it hard to designate specific time to writing. What I do is more of a general weekly writing goal of 5,000 words a week. I write during my lunch break, waiting for my oil change at the repair shop, waiting in a long line at the bank, when I have a free evening at home - you get the idea. Sometimes I don’t make that goal because life happens, but I don’t beat myself up for it, I just partition the extra words between the following two weeks to make it up. Right now I’m not following that schedule though as I’m focusing on short stories, so my writing time/amount of words on the page is even more sporadic than it was when I was writing Creatures Most Vile.
Little did I know I would soon fall in love with writing. One thing I have been my whole life is a lover of books, I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me until I was 21 that I might actually love writing books, too.
So now that I’ve caught the bug, I find I have lots of stories to tell. Stories about girls who find themselves misunderstood and ridiculed by society, girls who fight for their right to live their lives the way they choose, free of retribution.
You are in the process of querying agents and publishers. How have you found that process and do you have any tips for writers who may be getting close to finishing their current manuscript?
Querying is one of the most difficult things I’ve done to myself. I am willingly putting a piece of myself out into the world for strangers to judge and, in my case, reject. That is one of the hardest things to cope with during the querying process- people constantly rejecting something you love with all your heart and poured endless amounts of work into.
So my biggest tip for writers about to start querying is prepare your heart. Be ready for rejection and have some coping strategies to get through it. Most importantly, always keep in mind that rejection is NOT a measure of your talent or self. You’re work is amazing and you are amazing for putting yourself out there and taking this big step towards sharing your creation with the world. Don’t let the rejections define you or discourage you, no matter how many stack up.
My coping strategy is to turn that rejection into fuel to move forward. I have a rejection goals checklist, for every rejection I put a sticker on the board. My current goal is to reach 30 rejections by the end of the year. Those stickers show that I’m not giving up on my dream by turning my rejections into milestones, rather than failures.
Don’t let the rejections define you or discourage you, no matter how many stack up.
Your first novel, Creatures Most Vile, is a YA fantasy rife with terrifying monsters that stalk a young woman named Anora who is navigating the difficulties of trauma and struggling to support her family. Where did you find inspiration for this harrowing tale?
The initial inspiration came from a dream... When I woke up, I wrote the dream down and used that as my base for the story.
The suspenseful scary setting and monster inspirations come from my lifelong interest in all things horror. I'm a big fan of monster movies especially, because I love seeing imaginative takes on biology. Writing my creatures was my favorite part because I got to be the creator and brought my own imagined organisms to life on the page.
Writing my creatures was my favorite part because I got to be the creator and brought my own imagined organisms to life on the page.
Issues surrounding mental health have been given increasing attention in recent public discourse. Through Anora’s story are you trying to address any particular mental health concern or spark a conversation on a particular issue related to that topic?
Yes! The main theme and conversation I want to address is the downplay of mental health in society.
Anora suffers from PTSD and anxiety from growing up in a world constantly under threat of attack from voracious monsters. She has witnessed countless massacres, including her father’s death, and has nearly met her own grisly demise more times than she cares to count. When her storm-wielding powers are discovered and she’s expected to fight these beasts, her mental health is completely disregarded by society. They write it off as a simple fear she’ll get over with time and throw her right into the thick of training without a second thought.
When her storm-wielding powers are discovered and she’s expected to fight these beasts, her mental health is completely disregarded by society.
This is a problem that many people with any form of mental illness face. I suffer from anxiety and had situational depression in the past. I’ve heard comments like “You’re overreacting/ being dramatic”, “Just calm down”, or “Get over it” more times than I should. Downplaying and disregarding any form of mental illness needs to stop. Mental health is just as important as any other health measure, and should be a priority concern with how people treat others, regardless of the kind of monster that person is facing.
Mental health is just as important as any other health measure, and should be a priority concern with how people treat others, regardless of the kind of monster that person is facing.
In speaking with other fantasy writers I find that one of the most common difficulties in building a fantastic world is handling and defining the role and use of magic. How does magic work within Anora’s world and how did you define its boundaries and limitations?
Magic is very rare in Anora’s world. The only manifestation of magic is through rare, supernatural abilities. I’ve drawn a lot from my biology background to define the terms of this magic. It is something you’re born with, a specific gene mutation occurring in a small portion of the population that allows the person to manipulate specific aspects of the environment. In Anora’s case, she can manipulate specific elements: water and air. She can manipulate them individually or in tandem to create weather. Others are born with a manipulation of earth or energy, while others can manipulate more organic materials like muscles, nerves, and brain matter (IE mind control).
With the biological element to how these powers work, there is a finite well to their power that limits them from being super crazy powerful beings. The explanation behind how it works is super science-y and I won’t describe here (I don’t go into full detail in the book either, it’s mainly to satisfy my nerdiness).
There are no magical objects, but there is some imaginative tech developed to help people survive in this creature ridden world.
I’ve drawn a lot from my biology background to define the terms of this magic. It is something you’re born with, a specific gene mutation occurring in a small portion of the population...
Where can readers keep track of Creatures Most Vile on its march towards publication and where stay fans stay up to date on your most current projects?
Creatures Most Vile and I have a long journey ahead of us and I post updates on Facebook, Twitter, and my website. Thank you for your support and hope one day you’ll find Creatures Most Vile sitting on your shelf!
Fantasy brings to mind worlds of pure imagination. As an author this can feel like a nearly limitless power to craft any realm you desire and these worlds are so wonderful precisely because they are not our own. But that feature is also a limitation: the characters within the fantasy world should not (in most cases) have knowledge of our world. A critical issue arises when certain elements of our present reality leak into character dialogue or scene descriptions, an issue in fantasy which I call the problem of a leaky world.
A critical issue arises when certain elements of our present reality leak into character dialogue or scene descriptions,
...it is easy to let certain things slip through the narrative that are references specific to our reality; the effect of such a mistake is to yank the reader out of the fantasy world momentarily and break the spell of imaginative literature.
Consider the following cliche which might easily slip into a scene of dialogue between two characters.
“Give them an inch and they'll take a mile!”
The issue with this phrase in the context of a fantasy novel is neither the idea that is being communicated nor the fact that it is a cliche in English culture (as using cliches is just lazy in general); the ‘leak’ is in the specific reference to ‘inches’ and ‘miles’.
To refer to ‘inches’ and ‘miles’ in a fantasy novel is to directly reference an important part of the real history and development of our culture. This suggests that either these fantasy characters have some sort of access to our sphere of knowledge or that they miraculously developed the same unit of measurement completely by chance. In either case the suspension of reality has been fractured and the reader is dragged back into the world they are trying to escape.
To refer to ‘inches’ and ‘miles’ in a fantasy novel [...] suggests that either these fantasy characters have some sort of access to our sphere of knowledge or that they miraculously developed the same unit of measurement...
How can this be fixed? The first and perhaps most obvious solution might be to do the same thing that fantasy authors do with languages, towns, cities, and countries: make one up! But if you are to create a system of measurement in your fantasy world then you are stuck with the exact opposite problem. It is not your fantastic characters that are in possession of inaccessible knowledge but your reader who has a lack of inherent knowledge about the fantasy world. To inform them of the length of an imaginary unit of measure you'll need to use units the reader can understand, units like ‘inches’ and ‘miles’, and once again that drops them back into the reality that you are trying to suspend.
To inform them of the length of an imaginary unit of measure you'll need to use units the reader can understand, units like ‘inches’ and ‘miles’, and once again that drops them back into the reality that you are trying to suspend.
This allows the reader to remain in fantastic suspension while the narrator handles issues
The second solution is a bit more challenging but, I believe, lets the reader immerse themselves more fully in the world and, more importantly, in the story. Instead of relying on a narrator to bridge the worlds, the author can look for common experiences between them that could conceivably be shared without any ‘leaking’ of information. Ancient civilizations demonstrate this concept superbly as they developed things like chairs and clothing and swords independently without any need to ‘leak’ information between themselves.
...the author can look for common experiences between [the worlds]
So let us return to the problematic phrase about ‘inches’ and ‘miles’. With the right kind of narrator the units of measure used in the fantastic world can be directly translated to familiar units. Alternatively, the author might try to identify experiences common to both the fantasy characters and the reader. For example, to describe the height of buildings I have taken to comparing the distance to spear lengths. Spears, common across many cultures, usually reach a bit higher than the average person. A house that is “three spear lengths high” then becomes a description that would give both the reader and the characters in the fantastic world a good sense of its size. For longer distances, such as 30 miles, the author might express the distance in terms of time. If you believe that most people can walk about 10 miles in a day then to say that a group of characters walked for three days conveys a distance similar to 30 miles without needing to use a specific unit of measure.
For example, to describe the height of buildings I have taken to comparing the distance to spear lengths.
Of course, this is just one brief example of a ‘leaky world’ problem, but it illustrates a pitfall quite particular to fantasy which I believe should be vigorously avoided. Common phrases such as cliches are particularly prone to ‘leaking’ information and should either be avoided altogether, used very cautiously, or adapted to better suit the culture of the fantasy world. By crafting a narrative that brings the reader into a story with as few ‘leaks’ as possible we can convince them to leave reality behind and experience the wonder, the beauty, and the terror of our imagined worlds.
By crafting a narrative that brings the reader into a story with as few ‘leaks’ as possible we can convince them to leave reality behind and experience the wonder, the beauty, and the terror of our imagined worlds.
The poleaxe is such a versatile weapon, yet the longsword is arguably the most iconic piece of medieval imagery
This last question is driving me crazy! There’s so many people I want to choose… Vladimir the Great, William the Conqueror, Saladin, Alexander Nevsky, Edward III, Geoffroi de Charney… The list goes on. At the end of the day though, I think I would have to say Henry V. Aside from Shakespeare’s play, Henry V is the most iconic figure of the Middle Ages for me. He has such a thrilling story and it all leads to the Battle of Agincourt, which is my favorite medieval battle.
One of the most difficult things about writing is actually sitting down to write. As an independent author with three novels under your belt, do you have any advice for those who might struggle with just getting their story on the page?
The best advice I can offer is to sit down and write. Just write. Get those words onto the page. You can edit and perfect your story as you go, but you can’t do that when you haven’t written it yet. The most common complaint I get from friends and peers wanting to become writers is that they get stuck in the planning phases, or they have this great idea, but won’t sit down to do it. You can figure out your plans in greater detail as you’re writing. Your great idea needs to be on paper if you want it to go anywhere. Nothing happens if there aren’t words on the page.
Just write. The rest will follow!
Your great idea needs to be on paper if you want it to go anywhere. Nothing happens if there aren’t words on the page.
When it comes to world-building, I have two key pieces of advice:
First, study history. You don’t need to achieve a doctorate degree by any stretch, but having an understanding of the real world aspects of the setting you’re taking inspiration from is massively important. Knowing how people acted during certain events, how political bodies rose and fell, and the technology of the time and how it all worked together is a must-have for thorough world-building, in my opinion.
First, study history. You don’t need to achieve a doctorate degree by any stretch, but having an understanding
Second, always ask the question “Why?” when you create a new piece of the world. Why is this empire an empire? Why did these two nations fight? Why does this village exist where it does? Why did the people within the history of the world do the things that they did? The more you ask yourself that question, the more answers you’re going to come up with, and that is ultimately going to fill in the details of your setting.
Before we get to talking about your book series I want to bring up one of your hobbies: medieval re-enactment. With your hands-on experience in medieval combat techniques I’d really like to know what fantasy writers get wrong about medieval combat. What are the most common misconceptions you encounter in books and movies and how can they be fixed?
I would say, despite the many inaccuracies across books, movies, and video games, the most common incorrect portrayal is how armor functions. Armor is unavoidably such a crucial part of the Middle Ages and how the battlefield evolved - and that wouldn’t be the case if it was only mere costuming that wasn’t effective for protecting folks.
...despite the many inaccuracies across books, movies, and video games,
When we look at history, the bigger wars usually don’t happen because of something that occurred last week.
I would argue that recent blockbuster hits such as Game of Thrones have really whetted an appetite for complex, large-scale fantasy stories among the general readership. However, that type of fiction is not something one just jumps into. How have you managed to handle the long history of a large fictional continent? Do you have endless piles of notes? Have you compiled A Brief History of Aerothos for your own reference? Or do you keep the entire world locked away in your head?
I began with notebooks, but that was a bad move on my part. I lost too many scraps of paper and threw too many notebooks away! Now, I have all of my official notes on my computer, detailing periods of history, family lineages, and so on. But there’s a great deal of it that is kept in my head, since there’s really too much to formally write down (I’d probably never write books if I did!)
The Halryians themselves found their roots in Greco-Roman history, and some of that carries into the Chronicles with their successors, such as the kingdoms of Valtia and Arathen (very much so in a similar way as to say the Byzantine or Holy Roman empires and how they evolved from the end of antiquity and the fall of the western Roman Empire.) There are some other obvious comparisons in Aerothos as well, such as the Kingdom of Rovaskia being based on Scandinavian culture and the Kingdom of Rhodrien largely reflecting England, Wales, and Ireland.
While Aerothos is primarily inspired by Western Europe, I personally have a deep interest in Eastern European and Arabic history as well, which I try to pull a lot of inspiration from.
While I’m certainly inspired by other fantasy works, nearly all my ideas can find their origins in the real world.
What is happening next in Aerothos and where can readers find out more?
Right now I’m working on Part II of the Chronicles of Aerothos, which undoubtedly has a lot of work ahead of it still. I took a detour from Chronicles to write the Tales books, because I wanted to use those works to try new things and develop my writing. Now that I feel prepared, it’s time to return to the Chronicles and continue the epic story! Part II will be a much darker, gruesome story, as our heroes begin to face new challenges that come after the first season of war. The veil of glory and chivalry has been lifted, and now the true horror of war begins to fall upon Aerothos.
The veil of glory and chivalry has been lifted, and now the true horror of war begins to fall upon Aerothos.
What does your writing schedule look like? Is it highly structured or very flexible? Is there a particular location or type of space you like to write in?
I write primarily in the mornings when my son is in kindergarten. But I often end up writing at night if the words are flowing. I’m not at my best in the evenings, but anything to get the words on the page! I used to love writing in cafes or bookstores, but the last few years I’ve tried really hard to make my desk at home as personal and comfortable as I can. I have a stuffed purple dragon on the upper shelf, and I always light a candle from Folklore Candle Co (their scents are literary- and mythology-inspired.) I also listen to lots of folk metal when I write.
"I used to love writing in cafes or bookstores, but the last few years
When I first started writing I was discouraged from writing fantasy if I wanted to get published. However, both you and I have succeeded in getting our works of fantasy published traditionally. Do you have any advice for fantasy authors who are still trying to land that first publishing contract?
Oh goodness, this question is right in my wheelhouse! I struggled early on with finding my niche, and even today I have certain well-meaning family members tell me what I should and shouldn’t write. I cannot stand that type of pretentiousness in literature. Genre fiction authors must fight against it all the time. My advice to any genre fiction author, whether fantasy, sci-fi, fairy-tales, or any type of speculative fiction - write what you love, and never listen to “shouldn’t.” I promise that others - even the big publishers - also love what you love.
"My advice to any genre fiction author, whether fantasy, sci-fi, fairy-tales,
Your current project, an Urban Fantasy novel called Draugr, is the prequel to a series following the exploits of Leif Halfdan. This sharp-tongued immortal character spends his time working as a historical consultant and local detective. In your novel, he’s called to consult at an archaeological dig in Scotland. What were your sources of inspiration for this quirky, cunning character and the world he inhabits?
Oh, Leif Halfdan is such a special character to me. He carries so much on his shoulders and I feel bad for terrorizing him. But then he goes and pulls a numbskull move, and then I don’t feel as bad. He’s someone who desperately wants to do the right thing, and holds himself - and sometimes everyone else - to an impossible standard. He actually arose as a secondary character in the first novel I ever wrote, which will never ever see the light of day. I ended up falling in love with his rough manners and guilt complex, and thus Draugr took its first breaths. I wrote the first version of the story in six weeks, and knew for certain that this was a story and a character that needed to be shared.
"I tried to go more for a feeling of the mythology and the history, rather than a true retelling.
When I wrote my first full novel, The Gatewatch, it was originally only meant to be an extended backstory for the book concept which I’m now working on. It seems you had a similar experience with your first book Wergild and your current project, Draugr. What led you to make the decision to let Wergild lie idle for a time while you write Draugr?
Funny how side projects can slip past us and become main projects! Wergild was the first novel I ever truly finished. It taught me how to complete a long project. I wrote and rewrote for six straight years, and shed lots of blood and tears over it. But in the end, I knew it just wasn’t the right story to be telling. It broke my heart, but ultimately, setting it aside freed my creativity up to rewrite Draugr. There are elements of Wergild that I will take with me along Leif’s journey, happily. I’ll always be grateful for the lessons it taught me.
"It broke my heart, but ultimately, setting it aside freed my creativity up to rewrite Draugr."
I really enjoyed the excerpt of Draugr that you posted to your blog! Where can we track the release of Draugr and stay up to date on your future writing projects?
Thank you! There are actually a couple of excerpts on my blog, so readers can get a good taste there. I am currently in the revision process, but I hope to be finished and querying agents by autumn. I am very active on Twitter, and I frequently post progress reports there. I also hope to be announcing a new mystery project in the next two months. Stay tuned!
Joshua Gillingham is an author, editor, and game designer from Vancouver Island, Canada.